Native Southeast and the British in the 1700s

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The late 17th century and early 18th century saw an era of multifaceted incorporation. While the Europeans were taking control of more and more Native lands, the Natives were trying to make sense of these newcomers. And, despite intertribal conflicts, the Natives pretty much held their ground when it came to facing the colonists. How did this power dynamic work out in the Native Southeast?

Portrait of Cherokee Indians,. They  were a Native American tribe living in the American Southeast.
For the Natives in the Southeast, a search for common ground was challenged even more by the spread of diseases, expansion of slavery, and the onset of war. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

During the 1720s, a headman from the tribal community in the Carolina Piedmont presented the colonial governor of South Carolina with a deerskin map.

In the center were circles of various sizes depicting individual Native groups—the Nasaw, Suttiries, and Nustie, among others. Lines representing pathways connected these communities to each other and to the city of Charleston, South Carolina and the colony of Virginia to the left and right, respectively.

Learn more about the Native South in the 1600s.

A Story of Mutual Incorporation

But, it would be a mistake to see this as just a map. In fact, it tells a story      in microcosm of what was happening all across Native America, and it demands that we meditate on the very different ways that Native and non-Native people made sense of the worlds in which they lived.

In other words, this map tells a Native-centered story about the ongoing processes of mutual incorporation and reciprocal transformation during the late 17th and first half of the 18th centuries. And, it affords an Indigenous way of seeing how Native people pulled Europeans into their worlds on their own terms.

A Native Perspective of the European Newcomers

Consider, for instance, that European places take the form of rectangles, rather than circles in the map. Or, that, instead of fixating on distance, scale, or topography, the map emphasizes the relative location of peoples and how they relate to one another.

And finally, consider that while South Carolinians referred to all of the Native people in the area as one tribe—the Catawbas—that name does not even appear on the map. Instead, we see the names  of many distinct peoples who were, in fact, in the midst of going through a process of fragmentation and coalescence.

So, this map suggests the need for us to readjust our vision if we are to understand the late 17th and early 18th centuries from Native perspectives.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Did the Europeans Really Control Native Lands?

Now, it’s true that this period saw a virtually constant state of war in many parts of North America, as European nations fought over competing claims to Native ground. But, as this map indicates, the idea that Europeans controlled much of anything was illusory.

The truth of the matter, as this map suggests, is that most of Native America remained Native ground. And there was a lot more to Native people’s lives than war.

An annotated copy of original hand-drawn deerskin map made by a Catawba chieftain to South Carolina governor.
The Catawba deerskin map tells a story in microcosm of what was happening all across Native America. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

Drawing from research on the Arkansas River Valley, historian Kathleen DuVal offers this reappraisal: “Rather than being colonized, Indians drew a successive series of European empires into local patterns of land and resource allocation, sustenance, goods exchange, gender relations, diplomacy, and warfare.”

Preserving Native Lands in the Southeast

In the Southeast, increased social and economic interactions with colonists made it increasingly difficult for Native people to control the rate and shape of change. Their search for common ground was challenged even more by the spread of diseases, the expansion of slavery, and the onset of war.

For instance, between 1711 and 1713, the Tuscarora people fought—and lost—a devastating war against the British and their Yamasee allies in North Carolina.

Tuscarora War with the British

Tuscarora diplomats initially used treaty-making with colonial officials to resolve tense trade relations and disputes that arose over settler land encroachments. But, this couldn’t contain the hostilities, and local violence that erupted in a general war in 1711.

North Carolina officials then turned to Virginia, South Carolina, and the Yamasee as allies and eventually defeated the Tuscarora. Several hundred Tuscaroras were taken into slavery.

The other survivors moved north, seeking refuge with the Haudenosaunee, as they spoke related Iroquoian languages. Unable to preserve their Native ground in North Carolina, the Tuscarora joined the Iroquois Confederacy, becoming its sixth nation, in 1722.

The Yamasee People

Meanwhile, the Yamasee in South Carolina experienced a similar trauma that led to war in 1715. In the years leading up to this conflict, the Yamasee protected their nation and land through an alliance with the colony. This included providing South Carolina with deerskins and indigenous slaves.

However, after the Tuscarora War, the sources of deerskins and captives were depleted, and the Yamasee became increasingly indebted to colonial traders. At the same time, land-hungry settlers and plantation owners pressed the Yamasee land.

Making matters worse, a smallpox epidemic struck the already beleaguered nation.

The Yamasee War

In 1715, attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the growing crisis fell apart and a war began. This was a complex conflict that involved several tribal nations, each with their own reasons for being involved. And while it ended at various times for various parties, the war had largely come to an end by 1718.

If, for the Yamasee, the war proved traumatic, it also demonstrated their resiliency. Many of their people had been either killed or sold into slavery, and most of the survivors fled south in search of refuge. And although they faced hardships, they, like the Tuscarora, became a part of other tribal groups, including the emerging Creek Confederacy and the Seminole.

Learn more about nature spirits in the Native American myth.

Natives, Europeans, and Reciprocal Transformation

The end of the Yamasee War brings us back to the Catawba map that we discussed in the beginning. For in the wake of this destructive war, refugees from fragmented tribal communities in South Carolina, such as the Cheraw, Waxhaw, and Wateree, coalesced to form a larger confederacy of peoples that would, in time, be referred to collectively as the Catawba.

The mapmaker, then, told one part of a story that defined the 17th and early 18th centuries for much of Native America—a story of how Native people engaged in a process of mutual incorporation and reciprocal transformation to preserve Native ground.

But, it remained to be seen how long the Native ground could last.

Common Questions about Native Southeast in the 18th Century

Q: Why did the Tuscarora War happen?

In the Native Southeast, tensions with colonial officials over trade disputes that arose over settler land encroachments led the Tuscarora People into a war with the British in 1711.

Q: What was the reason for the Yamasee War?

After the Tuscarora War, sources of deerskins and captives were depleted, and the Yamasee became increasingly indebted to colonial traders in the Native Southeast. At the same time, land-hungry settlers and plantation owners pressed the Yamasee land. Thus, when attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the growing crisis fell apart, a war began in 1715.

Q: What happened after the Tuscarora War?

After the Tuscarora War in the Native Southeast, several hundred Tuscaroras were taken into slavery. Other survivors moved north, seeking refuge with the Haudenosaunee. And, unable to preserve their Native ground in North Carolina, the Tuscarora joined the Iroquois Confederacy, becoming its sixth nation, in 1722.

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